Review: Luther: Man between God and the Devil

Title of Work:

Luther: Man between God and the Devil

Author of Work:

Heiko Oberman


Pastor Jeffrey Samelson

Page Number:

Format Availability:


Luther:  Man between God and the Devil, by Heiko Oberman, translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. 330 pages (380 with notes, index, etc.).

(German original: Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel. Berlin: Severin und Seidler Verlag GMbH,1982.)

SS.21.Luther.LgHeiko Augustinus Oberman (born October 15, 1930, Utrecht, Netherlands; died April 22, 2001, Tucson, Arizona) was a historian who specialized in the study of church history and the late medieval and Renaissance periods, with particular focus on the Reformation.  He taught at Harvard Divinity School, the University of Tübingen, and the University of Arizona. Oberman was also ordained in the Netherlands Reformed Church.

I remember being taught in church history class that after Christ himself, no figure in history has had more books written about him than Martin Luther.  Accurate or not, that “factoid” is certainly believable when one consults a good library’s or bookseller’s listings — there is an abundance of Luther biographies out there, and that makes it very difficult to determine which are worth reading — and which are worth recommending.

Heiko Oberman’s Luther:  Man between God and the Devil is both, and I wish I had picked it up a long time ago.  It is not the entry-level biography that many of us are familiar with in James M. Kittleson’s Luther the Reformer, nor is it a popular treatment of Luther’s life such as Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand.  It is instead that rare combination of scholarly work and enjoyable biography, one that both adds new information to the reader’s understanding of this complex man and refutes false ideas about him that have become all too prevalent in other presentations of Luther’s life, work, and influence.

Anyone picking up Oberman’s book expecting nothing but a biography will be surprised, however.  In order to achieve his goal of presenting Luther the man in his proper historical context, Oberman places the details of the Reformer’s life and work into a larger discussion of the medieval church and world and their ripeness for reformation.  Even the organization of the book reflects this concern — rather than follow anything like a chronological “Luther as a child, Luther as a young man, Luther as an old man, Luther’s death and legacy” outline, it is simply divided into three parts: The Longed-for Reformation, The Unexpected Reformation, and The Reformation in Peril.

While to some this addition of historical detail might seem to add a lot of extraneous information, it is necessary to serve Oberman’s purpose: “to leave behind our own view of life and the world: to cross centuries of confessional and intellectual conflict in order to become [Luther’s] contemporary” (xix).  The author recognizes what too few “scholars” today seem to understand:

Getting to know Martin Luther requires more than just following him to the various scenes of the Reformation and more than just compiling theological highlights, though all this is part of our pursuit.  The crucial point is to grasp the man in his totality — with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time (xix).

To achieve his goals with the book, Oberman begins at the end.  The Prologue presents the scene of Luther’s death and its aftermath, with a brief discussion of the Reformer’s legacy — both intended and unintended.  This is also where Oberman introduces one of the primary ideas of the biography: the key role of thinking about the devil in Luther’s work, life, and writings — as well as that of the age he lived in:

According to Luther’s prediction, the Devil would not “tolerate” the rediscovery of the Gospel; he would rebel with all his might, and muster all his forces against it. God’s Reformation would be preceded by a counterreformation, and the Devil’s progress would mark the Last Days.  For where God is at work — in man and in human history — the Devil, the spirit of negation, is never far away (12).

Once Oberman gets going with the body of the biography, he quickly fills the reader up with both historical details and scholarly analysis, often taking time to “debunk” some of what has become “received truth” in Luther and Reformation scholarship, e.g. “The supreme ecclesiastical authority of the German prince was not a result of the Reformation, as often claimed: it preceded the Reformation and provided the cradle for its early emergence and ultimate survival” (20) and, regarding the idea that Luther was a nationalist working to raise his “beloved Germans” up over other peoples, “With his catechism and Bible, he taught the people to pray and write in German, not to propagate the uniqueness of the ‘German spirit’ but to set an example for the many nations of Christendom to imitate” (49).

The rest of Luther:  Man between God and the Devil is full of similarly valuable insights and information.  I read the book with highlighter in hand, more often uncapped than capped, also making frequent notes (filling three pages) of items I thought worth returning to:  the biography of Luther’s mother, Margaret, which was all new to me; a discussion of his “earthy” language and how it would have been received in its cultural context; a thorough and spirited debunking of the idea  — popular among liberal Lutherans today — that the Reformer was all about “freedom of conscience”; presentation of the “three solas”, contra the assertion common among many confessional Lutherans today that we should speak of five, not three; and much more.  Any Lutheran looking for pithy quotes to post on his or her blog or Facebook page will find a rich resource in Oberman’s work — as will anyone seeking a deeper knowledge of Luther’s character and psyche.

What a theologically trained confessional Lutheran will most likely find when reading the book, however, is a perhaps surprising sense that Oberman, unlike so many historians and theologians, actually gets Luther and Lutheran doctrine. While not providing a whitewash, he insists that Luther cannot be judged by modern, anachronistic standards on things like his writings against the papacy or the Jews — or even his bigamous advice to Philip of Hesse.  He also draws clear distinctions between modern Protestantism, in its various forms, and Reformation doctrine, pointing out that what many people today think they know or understand about Luther they don’t really have a grasp on at all — refuting, for instance, the idea that Luther had little use for the Church and instead championed the independence of the individual believer and his ideas.  To what extent Oberman’s own beliefs might have matched Luther’s cannot be seen from the book, but in many cases a confessional Lutheran would have trouble doing a better job of presenting the Reformer’s (and our) teachings than the author did — even on the Sacraments.

This is not to say, of course, that the book is perfect.  Many of the places where I took exception to a statement or scratched my head, though, might be attributed to a lack of clarity or an imprecision in translation.  There were some points made where it was unclear whether Oberman was expressing his own conclusions or merely presenting the views of others, e.g. “Modern research … knows that early Christendom was silent on the subject of infant baptism and has recognized that Luther’s central biblical passage, the baptismal commandment, was added to the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark only later” (231).

I suspect that a problem in translation — which is otherwise masterfully done — might be responsible for some things like an apparently anachronistic use of “Baptists” (227) or lost meaning in rendering what I assume was “Gottesdienst” in “Luther indicates that he does not want to divide divine worship from the common good, Christian from citizen” (256).  I also felt Oberman’s discussion of the Schwärmer — translated simply as “fanatics” (229) — left out much of the depth of meaning (and criticism) Luther attached to the term.

Perhaps the most basic criticism I could level against the book regards its major premise: that Luther’s medieval fear of the devil and respect for the danger he poses drove the Reformer to do so much of what he did.  While Oberman does a good job of bringing Satan into the picture as a motivating force where most moderns would simply ignore him as superstition, I felt that the author pressed the idea beyond its relevance, and in the process lost sight of the primary role of the gospel of Christ — the force that truly drove Luther most and inspired his greatest works.

Sandwiched between the endnotes and the indices is a very useful two-column chronological outline that lists “Events in the Age of the Reformation” and “Events in the Life of Martin Luther” — this resource could very easily be overlooked after 24 pages of notes.  Unfortunately those notes — the evidence of Oberman’s painstaking research and scholarship — are mostly of very little use to the reader who might want to follow up on the references:  the vast majority of them are to Luther’s works as collected in the Weimar Ausgabe — a treasury readily available to few and written only in the original German (or Latin).  While I recognize it would have been a monumental task, some effort to match up the references to the American Edition of Luther’s Works, for the benefit of English readers, would have been greatly appreciated.

Nevertheless, these criticisms are basically minor quibbles with a major work of scholarship that any Lutheran pastor would benefit from reading, and probably adding to his library.  Most valuable — beyond merely reviewing the facts of Luther’s life and the Reformation — is Oberman’s systematic presentation of details that serve to refute misuses or misinterpretations of Luther’s legacy that are common among modern scholars in academia, liberals in the church, and Protestants whose understanding of Luther stops at the 95 Theses.  While this isn’t the book you would recommend to a layperson looking for a basic biography of Martin Luther, it would be the one you would suggest to the member, prospect, or friend whom you think has absorbed some of the wrong ideas out there about the Reformer and Lutheranism, or who simply would benefit from a book that does a good job of presenting the man and defending his doctrine in proper context.  It’s a solid biography that never crosses the line into easily ignored hagiography, and that is worthy of respect — and rereading.